What Is a Human?

One of the most memorable scenes in Monty Python’s irreverent 1979 film Life of Brian is a conversation among first-century Jewish zealots about identity. As these ineffectual rebels debate their political platform, one of them–a man called Stan played by Eric Idle–takes issue with his comrades’ non-gender inclusive language.

“Why are you always on about women, Stan?” presses a zealot portrayed by Michael Palin. Stan’s answer surprises his comrades in arms: “I want to be a woman. From now on, I want you all to call me Loretta. It’s my right as a man.” When asked why he wants to be a woman, Stan responds that he wants to have babies.

He soon wins over some of his more empathetic comrades, one of whom rationalizes that fighting for Stan’s (sorry! Loretta’s!) right to gestate babies, even though he can’t actually do it, “is symbolic of our struggle against oppression!”

A non-affirming radical played by Cleese mutters the punchline: “it’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.”

Cleese’s character in Life of Brian isn’t alone in being flabbergasted at this creative approach to shaping one’s gender identity. Many materialist atheists (for whom the body is all that there is) along with many Jews and Christians (who believe that the Creator’s design is “very good”) suddenly find themselves strange bedfellows against a rising tide of progressives who believe that our subjective views about ourselves are more real than our physical realities. When right-wing provocateur Matt Walsh asked some of these forward-thinking people, “what is a woman?” in interviews for his documentary of the same name, they couldn’t pinpoint a single answer. After all, isn’t identity merely a matter of self-definition?

As controversial as this debate over gender is today, the question about what defines a woman is really part of a larger question about identity that we in the west have been struggling with for some time: what is a human? In particular, what does it mean to be a human and what is our function?

The west’s Judeo-Christian tradition has argued that humans bear the image of God and proposed functions for us like, “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” A more secular answer that is rooted in both tradition and in human nature posits that survival is our chief end and that desires like social ties, reproduction, and work serve this goal. It’s worth noting that both of these proposals ground our ultimate satisfaction and purpose in the objective reality of our existence, so that we find meaning and purpose within limitations created for us by nature or nature’s God. But as starvation and war recede as threats to the survival of western humans, and as God feels less and less relevant in our secular age, a meaning vacuum has emerged, leaving us to pour into it our own individual or corporate sense of purpose.

But can we actually define ourselves autonomously or are we still limited by our natures? And what is human nature–is the real me an immaterial soul, or does my physical body define me?

It’s difficult to lay the blame on just one culprit for our mass confusion about the question of what a human really is. Perhaps we can hold ancient Greek philosophy responsible since one idea that it produced was that humans are essentially souls trapped in prisons of flesh. Once when the Apostle Paul told Athenian Greeks about his belief in the resurrection of the body, many of those listening began to scoff at the idea (Acts 17:32); yet over time the disembodied view of humanity would infiltrate even the Christian church and influence some of its greatest luminaries. George MacDonald once scolded, “never tell a child you have a soul. Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body… the body is but the temporary clothing of the soul.” While this idea has become a traditional one in the west, it’s not hard to see how it’s paved the way for a definition of humanity that doesn’t look to the body in any meaningful sense. The orthodox Christian view that in order for God to become truly human He had to take on human flesh–incarnation–has given way to an alienation from our physical existence that can only be called “excarnation.”

If we don’t want to lay all of the blame at the feet of Hellenized Christianity, maybe this confusion about what we are could instead be attributed to more modern thinkers, like the existentialists who argued that our choices and not our nature creates our identities and sense of meaning–that “existence precedes essence.”

Or shall we point the finger at post-modernists who speak of truth as subjective–as your truth or my truth but never the truth? The German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche, often seen as the father of both post-modernists and existentialists, has also been blamed for our desire to rewrite our natures due to the wide influence of his assertion that God is dead and meaning with Him, so we must now become gods ourselves–manufacturing our own definitions of good and evil to create meaning once again.

This problem is only getting worse as our technology develops. Many of us now live in artificially constructed corporate worlds where we find little joy or purpose so naturally question who we are and what we were made for. Social media pressures us into creating perfect but false images of ourselves to compete with the false images manufactured by our friends. New developments in artificial intelligence threaten to replace humans as creators, thinkers, inventors, and doers–perhaps bringing our crisis of identity to its zenith.

Some people fear that artificial intelligence could some day enslave or destroy our bodies, a la science fiction films like The Matrix or The Terminator. Perhaps we should, perhaps we shouldn’t. But a more clear and present danger is that AI has the potential to destroy our sense of purpose. In some of the more optimistic scenarios, as our work becomes increasingly automated by AI, we’ll be granted a Universal Basic Income stipend and can pursue personal passions like interpretive dance–at least until an interpretive dance AI is created and makes us feel useless again.

It seems that God (or evolution, if you like) has made us with a built-in desire to act and to do, to create and build things. But when everything is done for us, then what can be left for us to do? And perhaps even more distressing, what is left for us to be and become? Can the world sustain an entire species of unproductive, purposeless nihilists trying to satiate their boredom full time?

What then are the potential solutions to this problem of the modern world alienating us from our need to act and create? Perhaps the most extreme, and for that reason the most alluring, is the one offered by intellectual and terrorist Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber.

Kaczynski wrote in his 1995 manifesto that the affluent humans of the west had been alienated from our central purpose of survival due to the new prosperous world that had been suddenly birthed into existence. Instead of finding satisfaction and purpose from the necessity of working to keep ourselves alive like our ancestors had to do, we created artificial substitute goals like careers, prestige, popularity, and intellectual pursuits to pass all of the time we now have. From this perspective, we do not feel at home in our natural bodies because we do not use them in natural ways within organic human environments. This hypothesis has been independently attested to by some parents of trans-identifying children who turned off their kids’ smartphones and helped curate for them a new identity built upon working in the natural world outside their bedroom walls.

Maybe there’s something to be said for going outside and “touching grass,” as we often lecture doom-scrollers (those who spend all of their free time online reading about the latest potential apocalypse) to do. Spending more time in the realm of nature and not artifice, being fully aware of our bodies and the world which they emerged from, could at least remind us that our bodies are good and that they serve a purpose in the world we inhabit.

But is Kaczynski right that our best way forward is to destroy all of the technology and complex systems that have been systematically dismantling extreme global poverty for decades? Would we truly all be better off if we all became farmers or hunter-gatherers waiting for the next famine to wipe us out instead of living prosperous lives as doctors, grocery store managers, or agricultural scientists? Having a long, healthy life and a full belly isn’t everything, but doesn’t loving our neighbors include some measure of wanting life’s essentials for them? The Christian libertarian cannot ultimately take this view beyond its most superficial state.

If it isn’t the work we do that’s making us question who we are, perhaps what we’re really suffering from is a philosophical illness of the mind–imbibing too much postmodernism or Greek ideas about the soul. To have a mind separated from one’s bodily reality is a kind of madness, isn’t it? And when it takes the form of a denial or rejection of one’s body so that one may be autonomous over it, one must pause and remember that madness is a form of autonomy, too.

Or maybe our problem is spiritual.

In the Christian worldview, our bodies are “very good” right from the start. Even the entrance of sin in no way undermines that reality. The story of Jesus–God become man–reminds us that our bodies are not only good and capable of goodness, but they are essential to our humanity. But being made in the image of God is a constant negotiation between the limitations of our created nature and the desire to create which God instilled in us. When these two conflict, our creativity can become destructive. As creators in the image of the creating God, we can use traditional and conventional means to create stronger crops that feed many more people or we can build better houses that withstand severe weather, thus saving lives. But we can also deny our dependence upon God to build atomic weapons, reshape our bodies, and perhaps someday even leave them behind to join our minds to a digital network of consciousness. In the biblical account of humanity’s fall, it was humankind’s craving to do and to know autonomously–to create identities for ourselves that are divorced from who we are created to be–that brought about death and alienation. In this brave new world, we are reproducing this same mindset with the same predictable results.

If our rejection of our created limitations is primarily a spiritual problem, we have a path forward, but it isn’t necessarily going to be an easy road. The Lutheran theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a similar crisis of identity as a political prisoner negotiating the discrepancies among how he was seen by the jailers he deceived, the prisoners which he ministered to, and how he felt about himself internally. A poem entitled “Who Am I?” reflects that struggle. After grappling for an answer, he could only conclude:

“Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”